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Direct Heat Cooking on Your Campfire

If you really want to go “mountain man” and cook over open flame like it was done throughout time immemorial, consider direct heat cooking — also called “clinching”, but that seems like a terrible name for it. This is basically throwing a thick piece of red meat or vegetables like peppers or corn or cauliflower … right onto the fire!

Scary as this may be to consider, especially with a big thick piece of expensive red meat which works the best for this ultra-basic form of cooking, cooking directly on the coals really works. Besides, when you do this at a campsite or in the backyard in front of unsuspecting dinner guests … well, you’re going to start some conversation.

Here’s how to go about it:

Lump Charcoal ONLY for Direct Heat Cooking

  • The best (make that ONLY) fuel you should consider direct cooking with is hardwood lump charcoal. DO NOT USE charcoal briquettes of any kind for direct cooking. Briquettes all have chemical binders to form them and hold them together. You don’t want those touching your meat. And when briquettes burn they create that layer of fine gray ash. You don’t want that either. Lump charcoal burns faster and hotter, too. You DO want that for this kind of cooking. If you can find genuine aged and seasoned oak or other mild hardwood firewood, this will work, too, but it takes much longer to get a suitable coal bed than with lump charcoal.
  • Light the lump charcoal in a chimney with a sheet or two of newspaper wadded underneath it. Do not apply starting fluid or any other chemical to the charcoal. They are chemicals and you don’t want them on your food. Because lump charcoal burns fast, you’ll probably need more than you think, so heap the chimney full, full, full to light it.
  • Prepare a bed for the charcoal. You want to get air underneath it to get it ripping hot; 800-1000 degrees F is not uncommon for this kind of cooking. You can either take the grate out of a regular charcoal grill and pour the hot coals into the usual spot or if your using a fire pit, put some kind of elevated metal grate on the ground in the bottom so air can reach all around the coals. Have a shovel available so you can smooth out the coals to create as flat a cooking surface as possible.
  • Direct cooking pros will actually use a fan like a hairdryer to blow any visible ash off the surface of the coals, but you’ll get decent results by sticking your face as close as is comfortable and giving a good hard birthday candle blow. If not, there’s really not much ash on good hardwood lump charcoal, so you’ll be okay if you skip this step, too.

Less Ash than You Think in Direct Heat Cooking

  • This kind of intense sear cooking puts a layer of char on the outside of the meat, but there’s tons of flavor there. Intense heat searing is actually the same process world famous steak houses use – (what’s that one with two first names?) Direct cooking works best with a good dry rub coating on the meat first. Use whatever is your favorite, but avoid anything with sugar in it. This is also why thicker cuts of meat are recommended. Go with a steak that’s at least an inch thick, and thicker is better. It’s reported this method of cooking steaks was a favorite of President Dwight Eisenhower, and the ones he served up were 3-4 inches thick. Though we haven’t tried it, lamb and pork chops are also touted to work well for direct cooking.

Direct Heat has Less Chance of Burning than Grilling

  • You’re probably cringing in horror right now thinking, “These idiots are trying to get me to burn my expensive steak to cinders.” Actually … direct cooking gives you a greater margin for error against burning. The high heat quickly creates a crust and seals in a great deal of the fat that drips off on a grill and causes meat-burning flare ups. Secondly, you’re prohibiting one of the elements required to create flame, namely air. There’s no air space between the meat and the fuel, so flames can’t be created.
  • Another thing that’s different about direct cooking from grilling is you should turn the meat often on the coals. Like every 60-90 seconds. Do this throughout the cooking process. For inch-thick steaks, you’ll cook 3-5 minutes on each side. For 3-4 inchers that will be 8-10 minutes per side. This will make the inside a warm rare. If you want medium rare to medium then allow the meat to warm additionally over indirect heat. (Use a thermometer to determine when it’s 10 degrees shy of your preferred doneness then remove.) As always, set the steak aside to rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting it up. We’re not wading into the debate about whether to tent the steak and soften that crisp crust you worked so hard to get, but ask yourself this: “Did mountain men have aluminum foil?”
  • Thankfully, you do, and it has a whole bunch of great uses even if you decide not to tent a steak with it. While the steak is resting, cover some sweet corn in aluminum foil, or other veggies; you can cook them in the coals, too. It’s easier to get adventurous with the side dishes because they didn’t cost you a day’s pay, so go nuts. Direct cooking turns out great potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, leeks, onions, cabbage and other vegetables. Getting the hang of it just takes some experimentation. Go for it, mountain man!
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